Barbara Park, author of some of the funniest children’s books around, died on Friday, November 15, at the age of 66. Her books are mainstays in the professional lives of anyone who works with elementary-age children. It’s an annual ritual in classrooms all over: As the school year winds down and children’s attention spans shrink, teachers get out The Kid in the Red Jacket, Skinnybones or its sequel, Almost Starring Skinnybones, and read aloud to gales of laughter.
But the books Park may well be best remembered for are not her stories for middle graders but her chapter books for a slightly younger audience: the phenomenally successful Junie B. Jones and Junie B., First Grader series. A direct descendent of Ramona Quimby, the irrepressible kindergartner burst onto the scene in Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus and immediately polarized adults even as she won her peers over.
How could a book about a mischievous kindergarten girl cause controversy? Well, Junie B.’s abundant use of the word “stupid,” for one. Adults who don’t want children in their care throwing the word “stupid” about, either because it is unkind or because it becomes a universal negative modifier, didn’t particularly want its use modeled in children’s literature. True to life though it may be, many adults didn’t want it to be true to their children’s lives.
Adults also objected to Junie B.’s irregular grammar. “And then I runned right outside!” Junie B. declares in a typical snatch of narration. She does most everything “speedy quick,” and she hasn’t yet learned the difference between nominative and objective pronoun use: “Me and my grampa got to stay at his house,” she informs readers. “And no one even babysitted us!” The controversy even made the New York Times.
Controversial or not, spunky, super-successful Junie B. opened the doors for a small army of disarmingly naughty, distinctively voiced little girls: Clementine, Ivy and Bean and Ruby Lu, Brave and True, among many others, joined Ramona and Junie B. on shelves all over the country.
As so many of these things do, it became personal when my daughter hit early elementary school. After torturing me for months by bringing home Berenstain Bears books from the school library, she moved on to Junie B. Jones. This was a significant step up, and I read them to her every night. I found some passages so funny I teared up, like this one, from Junie B Jones Has a Peep in Her Pocket:
“I don’t want to go,” I said. “I don’t want to go to the farm with Room Nine. ’Cause a farm is the most dangerous place I ever heard of.”
Daddy looked surprised at me.
“What are you talking about, Junie B.?” he said. “What’s dangerous about a farm?”
“The ponies, of course,” I said. “The ponies are dangerous. Farms have ponies running in their fields. Ponies can stomple you into the ground and kill you to death….I saw it on TV with my own eyeballs!”
Mother looked at Daddy.
“It was that stupid cable show the babysitter let her watch,” she said. “It was called—“
“WHEN PONIES ATTACK,” I hollered. “IT WAS CALLED WHEN PONIES ATTACK!”
But that didn’t mean I liked Junie B.’s grammar. It wasn’t so much that I was afraid it would stunt my daughter’s grammatical development, it was that I just couldn’t bring myself to vocalize it. So I changed “runned” to “ran” and “stoled” to “stole,” smoothed out her use of adverbs and corrected such locutions as “me and my grampa.”
This was how I learned that my daughter could really read. “That Grace and I ran there really fast,” I read one night. “No,” my daughter corrected me. “It says, ‘Me and that Grace runned there speedy fast.’ " Wow.
Thank you, Barbara Park, for all the laughs, for giving the industry such a great role model and for helping countless children to independent literacy.
Vicky Smith is the children’s and teen editor at Kirkus Reviews.